Art in the Open Students in Meg Griffith’s Spring Term art class created public works of art to draw attention to important causes in the community.
“One thing I didn’t think about before is how much I can personally do for the community, and the direct impact I can have.”
— Archer Biggs ’19
Everybody knows that public art can add color and vibrancy to a city or town, but the students in a Spring Term class at Washington and Lee learned that it can also tell an important story about the community.
Visiting Professor Meg Griffiths’ class, Artistic Collaboration and Community Engagement, required students to work with local nonprofits to conceptualize and make works of public art, then install them in the community. The result was a temporary exhibit at Hopkins Green in Lexington (visible through June 10) and a permanent installation at the Buena Vista Public Library.
“It’s amazing how a space can be transformed just with some materials and a little hard work,” Griffiths said.
To find nonprofits willing to work with students, Griffiths turned to W&L’s Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability. Alessandra Del Conte Dickovick, who works with the program’s Community-Based Research Alliance, helped the class connect with Rockbridge Area Prevention Coalition, an arm of Rockbridge Area Community Services, and Saturday’s Child, a nonprofit organization in Buena Vista dedicated to youth enrichment.
The small class consisted of only four students: One team was made up of Sara Dotterer ’18 and McKenna Quatro ’18, who worked with RACS, while Patrick Robertson ’17 and Archer Biggs ’19 worked with Saturday’s Child.
The students first met with representatives to learn about the work done by the nonprofits in the community, and the challenges they face. This was followed up by research and brainstorming ideas for the art. Griffiths initially thought the process of selecting locations and obtaining permission from local governments to install the art would be a complicated one, but the nonprofits’ existing ties to the community were a boon. The idea was met only with enthusiasm.
Dotterer and Quatro chose a conceptual theme of circles, with the spheres representing various subsets of one large community, like social circles, but also ideas and problems within those communities. They were inspired by the knowledge that many citizens of the Rockbridge area struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, and that future substance use is a danger facing many adolescents in the community.
One goal of the class was to have students collaborate with local businesses to execute their ideas, all while staying mindful of the budget. Dotterer and Quatro had Lexington Building Supply craft their hoops out of PVC pipe. The hoops were then covered in brightly colored mason line, the nylon string used by bricklayers to ensure level rows. With the string hanging in layers from the hoops, the finished circles resemble vibrant octopi drifting in the breeze.
The hoops were hung from the pergola at Hopkins Green. Inspired by the Serenity Prayer used in addiction treatment, Dotterer and Quatro framed the display with the words serenity, change, courage and wisdom. Then, because they know teens tend to congregate in the park, they added a box filled with cards that offer ideas for fun, healthy activities that can replace substance abuse. One card suggested “rearrange your room” or “go to a movie at Hull’s Drive-in with family or friends.”
“I think the biggest takeaway for me was learning more about the Lexington community,” Quatro said of the project. “I guess I didn’t realize how bad [the drug problem] was here.”
Dotterer noted that they had to alter their plans several times throughout the project, which taught them valuable lessons. “There are always going to be limited resources and things that will trip you up, but it is the problem solving you use to get around it that is going to make it work.”
Jessica Hogarth, facilitator for the Rockbridge Area Prevention Coalition, said she was thrilled by the result. “It definitely turned out amazing,” she said. “I think what’s really cool about it is that it is so visually appealing, so that part draws people in. Then, once they actually go to the artwork, they can see the list of alternatives we have provided and they can see the meaning behind it. It just brought people together as a community to see something for a really good cause.”
Robertson and Biggs decided on a project that would allow children to contribute through hands-on activities. They erected a steel arbor on the lawn at the Buena Vista Public Library, positioning it as a gateway to two raised flowerbeds. Children from Saturday’s Child made and painted clay flower pots, which Robertson and Biggs filled with native flower species. Children also planted flower seeds in the two raised beds during a dedication ceremony on May 20.
But the most important part of the library project was the arbor itself, which is meant to represent Buena Vista’s identity as a former steel town. Biggs and Robertson asked Premier Fabrication Solutions, a metal fabrication company located in Buena Vista, for help with the project. Two employees ended up building the arbor, and they only charged the students for parts.
“We probably couldn’t have made this ourselves,” Robertson said. “We don’t have the experience and we didn’t have the time.”
The students planted honeysuckle vine at the foot of the arbor, hoping it will eventually climb and cover the structure. Again, they chose a native plant as a nod to the local culture.
“I envisioned this project as a connection back to Buena Vista as a manufacturing town,” Robertson said. “The steel is a tribute to that. And the plants symbolize the hope and possibility for future growth and improvement in the town.”
All four students admitted that when they signed up for the class, they weren’t sure what they were getting into or what they would learn from it. As they sat back and admired the result of four weeks’ work, they realized that it taught them about budgeting, scheduling, critical thinking, overcoming setbacks, and collaboration within the community.
“One thing I didn’t think about before,” Biggs said, “is how much I can personally do for the community, and the direct impact I can have.”